Can Dominic Cummings defy the political laws of gravity?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgRecent news has been dominated by Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham. As a serial rule-breaker, he seems intent on flouting the maxim that ‘when the adviser becomes the story, the adviser must go’. But with MPs returning today, other fundamental political rules may not be so easily broken, writes Meg Russell. All Prime Ministers depend on their backbenchers for support and, with Conservative MPs in open revolt over Cummings, Johnson’s backing for him may yet become untenable. In the Westminster system MPs are ultimately in charge, and there are ways in which they could assert their position.

The Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings doesn’t like to follow the rules. That’s not necessarily a statement on his lockdown-breaking trip to Durham – disdain for established rules, and specifically for conventional wisdom that can’t be directly enforced, is what Cummings has long been known for. For some, it’s seen as part of his ‘genius’. From flying a giant inflatable white elephant over the north-east during a referendum that destroyed Labour’s plans for English regional devolution, to the audacious ‘£350 million a week’ for the NHS on the Vote Leave battlebus, to the long-planned ‘people versus parliament’ election of 2019, his boundary-stretching has often proved a winning formula, and delivered for Boris Johnson.

Cummings has long shown particular disdain for traditional political institutions, and their old ways of doing things. He’s well-known for wanting to pursue radical reform of the civil service. Conservative Brexiteer MP Steve Baker, who was among the first to call for him to quit, credits Cummings with Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks, which was overturned in the Supreme Court. That move, like several others associated with Cummings, indicated his view that conventions, or the ‘accepted way of doing things’ count for nothing, while all that matters is the letter of the law. Other examples include suggestions to ‘pack’ the House of Lords with hundreds more Brexit-supporting peers, or to advise the Queen not to sign a rebel bill into law. Indeed ‘Downing Street sources’ went even further late last year, suggesting that Johnson might refuse to abide by a law passed by parliament. Continue reading

Light and shadows: the RHI scandal and the temptations of secrecy

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The RHI inquiry in Northern Ireland has led to concerns about a record ‘void’ that has left room for doubt and suspicion. Ben Worthy argues that the lack of a record might aid political deniability, but means that politicians also can’t be truly exonerated when accused of wrongdoing.

Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’?  While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?

Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if avoidance done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.

A few concrete examples have surfaced. We have had flashes of an apparent ‘chilling’ in the Trump White House and closer to home with Michael Gove using a private email address for public business in 2012 (as urged by his then adviser Dominic Cummings). More worrying was the evidence in Scotland in 2018 that some parts of government were engaged in ‘deliberate delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons’. But are these isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg of systematic resistance? Studies have come to varying conclusions and a select committee in 2012 concluded that there was no firm evidence.

However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam McBride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns ‘the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy’. However, the FAQ goes on, ‘how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern’. You can see the background here and a timeline. Continue reading

Challenges to good government in Northern Ireland: charting a future course

alan_rialto2-1The first part of this blog looked at Northern Ireland’s troubled experience with government without ministers for the last year and a half; while the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry offered colourful but not uplifting revelations about the way it had been conducted under devolution; and Westminster’s conduct of its responsibilities was widely questioned. Alan Whysall asks what lies behind these problems?

A lack of interest in good government and public policy has long been part of the Northern Ireland political culture. The dialogue in politics and the media has always readily reverted to the traditional issues – and more now that the parties are not constrained by the need to work together.

Partly, this illustrates the seriousness of the political and community divide that politics must seek to bridge. But the reflection of that divide in the structure of politics in Northern Ireland also means that no alternative government is on offer during elections, so misconduct in government is harder for the electorate to sanction. If the great priority of most electors is to support their community’s champion against the other side, the detail of the champion’s conduct in government gets lost. Continue reading

Challenges to good government in Northern Ireland: all shapes and sizes of icebergs

alan_rialto2-1With no ministers in charge since March 2017, public administration in Northern Ireland faces serious challenges. Civil servants have been attempting to keep things running, but on collapsing legal foundations. A public Inquiry has raised issues about competence, commitment and propriety in the old devolved government. There is little energy behind restoration of devolved government, and little lead from London. The lack of attention to good government, suggests Alan Whysall, is a serious weakness in Northern Ireland political culture that must be tackled. The first part of this blog outlines the current challenges; the second, what might be done about them.

There is a side of Northern Ireland that revels in its disasters. A whole quarter of Belfast is after all named after the Titanic, rather than the many Harland and Wolff ships that did not sink. So there was resentment when the Guinness Book of Records recently denied Northern Ireland’s claim to have gone for longer than anyone else without a government (on grounds of Westminster’s ultimate ability to intervene).

There has been no government at all as respects devolved matters since January 2017. The position is worse than in most states ‘without government’, including Guinness’ reigning champion Belgium, which have had ministers exercising caretaker functions. Northern Ireland has a legal void.

The larger political stakes around the collapse of devolution and profound disagreement over Brexit have been outlined in earlier pieces. They have continued to worsen. The focus of this blog is issues of governance – which however bear closely on future prospects of sustaining political progress. Continue reading

The latest special adviser data release: political control trumps technocratic measures of effectiveness

benjamin_yonghamish In December the government published its latest list of special advisers, revealing a small reduction in numbers under Theresa May compared to David Cameron’s 2015 government, with the reduction falling mostly on departments rather than the centre. In this post Ben Yong and Harmish Mehta examine the new list. They argue that by reducing the number of special advisers in departments Prime Minister May has prioritised political control over technocratic measures of effectiveness.

When Theresa May first became Prime Minister there were a number of reports (including in The Times, The Telegraph and Civil Service World) that she had insisted on a cap on the salaries of special advisers (spads) – which in effect would limit both the number and quality of spads appointed. This cap, the reports said, would deter good people from entering government. How true are these claims?

Just before Christmas, the government made its annual data release, setting out the number of spads and how they are distributed across government. There are now 83 spads in government; down from 95 under Cameron’s 2015 government, according to the data release. The centre (broadly defined as No. 10 and the Cabinet Office) has ‘lost’ just one spad; the key Whitehall departments have lost eleven (most significantly from the merging of BIS and DECC into BEIS; and in the Treasury). So there has been a drop in numbers, but this has fallen mostly on departments, not the centre. There has been the usual grumble about salaries and cost, but that is standard fare.

The bigger question is what all this says about May’s government, and more generally, British government. In popular parlance, spads are regarded as a waste of money and at worst, a pernicious breed of quasi-politicians. Within Westminster and Whitehall, however, they have long been accepted as part of British government. Spads are people the minister can completely trust, in a lonely and difficult role; they provide political advice of a kind that career civil servants often cannot; they can help coordinate government. It is this latter view of spads which informs some criticisms of May’s policy on spads (see The Spectator and The Telegraph). Limiting the number of spads and the kind of spads via a salary cap means limiting government effectiveness.

Continue reading